SCIENCE & ALIENATION -- CLR JAMES, MARIO BUNGE, JUAN INIGO
rdumain at igc.apc.org
Sun Jun 4 12:40:34 MDT 1995
SCIENCE IN AND BEYOND 'RATIONALISM'? OF C.L.R. JAMES, MARIO
BUNGE, JUAN INIGO, SLITHY TOVES AND OTHER THINGS
All throughout my ongoing sparring with Juan Inigo, I have
actually been hopeful that Juan really has some productive ideas
about science and alienation, but I haven't seen anything (1)
comprehensible (2) of substance come dancing through my pixels so
far. I'm disappointed, because I relish the opportunity to learn
something new. So until such is forthcoming, let me share a few
ideas on the problem as I see it.
1. C.L.R. JAMES
Western and Eastern Marxism have fought a lot of intellectual
battles, often based on rather uninteresting ontological disputes,
which can be crudely summed up in the battle between scientism and
irrationalism. I have often said that I reject the terms of
debate (while remaining a materialist myself). One source I find
useful in conceiving of an alternative to these premises is C.L.R.
James, and with that moniker I include also the amalgam of his
co-thinkers in the Johnson-Forest Tendency (depending on the area
of investigation: Raya Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee Boggs, primarily
-- esp. in theoretical matters, but also William Gorman, Martin
Glaberman, James Boggs, and others). One of the most interesting
and underanalyzed aspects of the Johnson-Forest world view is the
critique of 'rationalism' which can be found in various places but
is summed up in STATE CAPITALISM AND WORLD REVOLUTION (1950,
reprinted 1986 by Charles H. Kerr).
'Rationalism' is traced philosophically to Descartes, who is in
turn explained in terms of the emergence of capitalism and its
division of labor, and in particular its administrative methods.
The separation of the knowing, contemplating mind from the
physical world parallels the social world characterized by
"planning" or rational administration. This means not only the
marshalling of reason to appropriate and control the natural
world, but above all the administration of society based on one
group of people who direct its actions, and another group who are
reduced to executing the designs of the administrative group.
This is not news, is it, but it is the philosophical implications
that are most interesting. The Johnson-Forest analysis is far
more eloquent than this inept summary, and the various
consequences of the theory and practice of total administration
are treated, not only in the capitalist West, but in the "state
The critique of 'rationalism', I should emphasize one more, is not
anti-rational, but rather against the theory and practice of The
Plan, that one elite segment of society that thinks, plans, and
controls while the other just follows orders and does the work.
So the question is, how does this critique affect Reason as we
know it, which also means, how does it affect Science as we know
The implications, I hope, are clear to all. Certainly, Juan's
comments about the self-regulation of freely associated labor
(pardon my clumsy paraphrase) speak to this very issue. What are
its specific implications? What are its specific implications for
theoretical cognition, and finally, that sore test case, what are
its specific implications for the natural sciences (and
mathematics and logic, while we are at it)?
Johnson-Forest has much to say about how our notion of 'scientific
cognition' of society is affected by the philosophy of
'rationalism'. I do not recall their perspective being
substantively addressed to the natural sciences, though. James
was not at all opposed to science or technology. He had no need
to maintain his humanistic virginity in the face of science, he
did not shrink in horror from Engels or materialism, and he even
went so far as to call his particular Hegelian Marxist logic of
history (laced also with Young Hegelian teleology) scientific --
he even called it dialectical materialism. Raya and Grace (I use
their first names because they are easier to type) took different
paths. Grace, who is still alive and writing gibberish for
MONTHLY REVIEW, has become the most annoying of anti-scientific
obscurantists. Raya, though not having degraded herself quite
this far, nonetheless, never satisfactorily dealt with the science
question, as manifested by (1) her tiresome Western Marxist
attacks on Engels, Lenin's MATERIALISM AND EMPIRIO-CRITICISM, and
materialism, (2) her cult's bizarre booklet on Marx's mathematical
I have yet to see anyone following in this path work out specific
implications for scientific theory in the natural sciences. I'm
not saying the effects of alienation in this area is a complete
mystery to me personally, but even discounting the effects of
ideology at the highest theoretical levels, I see scientific
cognition pretty much as a rational enterprise that is not going
to disappear as we know it even as society is revolutionized.
I have read enough of the Soviet literature translated into
English also to perceive the ideological components in the
"scientific" world-picture of "state capitalism", but guess what:
I am not a "Western Marxist" -- I don't reject all of this
literature: some of it is quite valid. Moreover, it is quite
useful to check out the limits of "rationalism" in this
literature, because it is not all false: there is a limit that is
reached in the reach of this rationalism, and that limit is where
the challenge to the Stalinist planners begins.
The discussion of "alienation" at the highest levels of
abstraction will have to await another time. Let me just tease
you by mentioning that the return of the repressed is happening in
the history of mathematical logic and analytical philosophy too.
Works are appearing regarding Bertrand Russell's early
Hegelian-idealist period. In the past year I ran across a
mind-blowing article translated from German giving a Hegelian
perspective on formalization in relation to the extra-formal and
on the philosophical consequences of Russell's banning of
self-reference in mathematical logic.
But as I say, I await with great frustration Juan's input on
matters of this kind.
3. Mario Bunge
I am not especially knowledgeable regarding this noted bourgeois
materialist philosopher of science, but the little acquaintance I
have with his work gives me food for thought about the limits of
rationalism. My general impression is that Bunge represents both
the best and the worst of bourgeois rationalism.
The best: a background in physics, not just an armchair
philosopher. A materialist, working out a comprehensive ontology.
Pro-objective, anti-subjectivist, anti-obscurantist.
Also the best in my lights, though maybe not in yours: an opponent
of academic humanistic racketeering, ie. opposition to all
anti-scientific nihilism, in sociology of science, feminist
philosophy, etc. Rigorously eviscerates such charlatanism.
The worst: ignorant, uninformed prejudice against Marx, based on
one or two quotes out of context. Identifies above crap cited
with 'Marxism', in opposing said crap, opposes 'Marxism' also.
Unknowns: Bunge has written on philosophy of the social sciences,
eg. economics, but I know not one iota of his work here. I have
heard he opposes dialectical materialism, though his ontology
seems to be essentially dialectical materialist itself.
As I said, I know little about Bunge, though I relished a two-part
survey article of his putting above-mentioned intellectual
swindlers in their place. Nonetheless, Bunge is not the
revolutionary type, not only politically, but not even mentally.
Though he knows full well that science is beholden to and can be
distorted by its material social determinants, he seems incapable
of questioning the foundations of capitalist society, and
especially of the division of labor, to its philosophical limits,
which we could identify with the Johnson-Forest label
Indeed, Bunge is an excellent reminder of that capital quote from
Marx which Raya used to cite all the time, as Juan has recently:
"One basis for science and another for life is a priori a lie."
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